Posts Tagged ‘Sarah K.’s Picks’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 23, 2014

These five books were the ones that stuck in my mind during 2014. They reveal truths about our shared humanity while introducing readers to new places and new forms of style. Take a moment to try these out; they are well worth your time.

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
On the night of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s seventh birthday, she disappears. Motherless, her fisherman father Nozias has decided to give Claire away to Madame Gaëlle, a shopkeeper who lost her daughter in an accident years earlier, to ensure Claire greater opportunities. As the members of the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, search for her, their interconnected stories, secrets, and losses emerge. Danticat creates vivid characters and her writing captures the beauty and sorrow of daily life.

The CommitmentsThe Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Put together a group of Dublin working class misfits with the soul sounds of the 1960s and you have Roddy Doyle’s punchy and charming novel about the joys of rock and roll. The book follows the escapades of the band as they combat over practice, get through their first gig, cut their first single and run into inevitable creative differences. Doyle’s free-flowing bawdy dialogue is exhilarating. So, if you are looking for some fun, introduce yourself to the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin: The Commitments.

My Struggle Book OneMy Struggle Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in the first volume of his novelistic autobiography. The book begins with a meditation on death and then proceeds to explore Knausgaard’s childhood and fraught relationship with his troubled father. This expansion and contraction of universal ideas and the minute details of Knausgaard’s life creates a fascinating tension between the author and the reader. Knausgaard lays his life out on the table with unflinching directness for the reader to examine. My Struggle is probably not for every reader, but it is something strange and new.

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald
Traveling across Europe, the unnamed narrator meets and befriends Jacques Austerlitz an architectural historian. As their relationship develops, he gradually learns of Austerlitz’s search for his lost history. As a small child, Austerlitz’s mother placed him a Kindertransport to Britain where an aged Welsh couple adopted him and gave him a new identity. After learning of his birth family after their deaths, Austerlitz begins to discover his past and how the Holocaust severed his past life from his present. Uncanny, hypnotic, and dreamlike, Austerlitz conveys the incompleteness of memories with their ragged and hazy qualities, while capturing the devastation of the Holocaust.

The Patrick Melrose NovelsThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn pillories the excesses and absurdities of the British upper class with elegant prose and vicious wit in this cycle of four novels. He begins with Patrick’s childhood relationships to his sadistic father and neglectful mother, and following him into a ravenous drug addiction, recovery, marriage and fatherhood. His character eventually reaches a form of uneasy redemption. Patrick and the world he inhabits aren’t likable, but there’s a level of truth to St. Aubyn’s storytelling, as Patrick struggles to place himself beyond his lifelong demons. Despite some of their grim subject matter, the novels are deeply, darkly funny.

Best New Books of 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2014

Identity and struggle are the themes of five of my favorite books from 2014. How does adversity shape who we are? How much do we control our identities and how much are we shaped by external forces? I invite you to check out these following titles

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Kidnapped by an armed street gang in Haiti, Mireille trusts her wealthy father to pay ransom to return her to her fairy tale existence with her husband and baby. When Mireille’s father refuses to capitulate to her captors, she must find the strength to endure days of torment while trying to maintain a connection to the woman she was. Gay’s frank treatment of rape and its aftermath with clean understated writing adds to the intensity of this book.

On the RunOn the Run by Alice Goffman
As an undergraduate, Alice Goffman moved into a neighborhood in Philadelphia and began taking field notes as she fully immersed herself in the lives of the families living there. The War on Drugs had created a culture of constant police surveillance of the lives of the residents there, especially among the young men, many of whom were in some sort of entanglement with the legal system. Goffman witnessed arrests, escapes from the police and how police use employment and familial relationships as leverage against suspects. Goffman has written an insightful and sobering critique of the policing of poor neighborhoods and the human toll that it takes on the individuals living there.

The Empathy ExamsThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
From the confinement of illness to the traps of poverty and prison, Leslie Jamison’s clear-eyed and far-ranging essays explore the intersection between empathy and pain. If you only have time for one essay, read “Fog Count,” which begins with a prison visit, but then expands to include the larger picture of the prison-industrial complex, strip mining and the economy of West Virginia.  Her curiosity about the human condition brings into sharp focus the capacity and limitations of compassion. She deftly weaves personal experience with the universal to create a collection that rivals early Joan Didion.

The Other LanguageThe Other Language by Francesca Marciano
A woman writes about the ideal Italy while homesick in New York. Another seeks out an old companion on an isolated island in the Indian Ocean; while a third buys a Chanel gown on a frivolous whim. In this collection of nine stories, Marciano travels across countries and cultures with a knack for capturing settings and tone. She vividly captures the lives of her characters at moments of transformation with lovely and fluid storytelling that keeps the pages turning.

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Eager to escape her lackluster existence as a working-class teenager in the Midlands of England, and her unfortunate Scooby-Doo impersonation on local television, Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, music journalist. After gaining the attention of a London-based music magazine, Johanna/Dolly embarks on a series of professional and sexual misadventures as she tries to figure out how to build her new life. If you were a teenager in the early 1990s, or enjoy bold raucous humor, chances are you will love this book as much as I did.

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

March 24, 2014

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., the protagonist of The Commitments, reappears in Roddy Doyle’s new novel, The Guts. In The Commitments, Jimmy Jr. was the 21-year-old firebrand manager of the hardest working Soul band in working-class Dublin. Now forty-seven with the demands and responsibilities of family life, the novel begins with Jimmy announcing to his father Jimmy Sr. that he has bowel cancer. What follows is how Jimmy Jr. navigates disease, family crises, job pressures, a bleak economic landscape, and a reunion with an old flame from his past. Lest this description make The Guts sound like a total downer, be advised that Doyle is a master of levity and wicked humor in the face of a bad situation. His dialogue is a joy to behold, profane and lively and full of energy like this exchange:

—Usin’ her feminine charms, yeah?
—Yeah. Spot on.
—She’s wastin’ her time, said Jimmy’s da.
—Wha’?
—Norman, said Jimmy’s da.—Did yeh not notice?
—He’s gay…
—Norman?
—The Norman in there, yeah.
—He’s gay?
—Yeah.
—Since when?
—Wha’?
—Like, he’s old, said Jimmy.

Also tying the two books together is Jimmy’s love affair with music and the ways in which we use music to bridge relationships in our lives. Throughout The Guts, Jimmy uses music to renew bonds with his children and friends and his quest for the perfect Irish song is a particularly satisfying storyline. The culminating scenes at an Irish outdoor music festival are lovely and low-key though Doyle is ever-wary of sentiment turning into saccharine. If you’re still looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s with some Irish fiction, The Guts won’t do you wrong.

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Best New Books of 2013: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2013

This year a study came out that demonstrated that after reading literary fiction, people scored better on tests measuring empathy. With that in mind, I present you five of my favorite novels and memoirs from 2013.  All of them pack an emotional wallop with characters that will linger with you, long after you finish their stories. After a year filled with impasses and increasing polarity, it wouldn’t hurt to see things from another point of view!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze separate when Ifemelu goes to university in the United States leaving Obinze behind in Nigeria. Stymied by post-9/11 immigration policies, he is unable to join her, and instead journeys to England to live illegally. Reunited years later, the pair must decide whether to begin anew or to return to their current life trajectories. Adichie’s keen observations and precise wit put her in the tradition of Jane Austen’s social and romantic explorations.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman
A year after Yehoshuah’s crucifixion, Roman-occupied Judea is in a state of unrest. Four people, Miryam, Iehuda, Caiaphas and Bar-Avo, try to make sense of the past as well as present life under their Roman oppressors. Alderman’s provocative retelling of the life of Christ is filled with vibrant descriptions of temple rites, riots, and assassinations, which bring immediacy to its ancient setting. Throughout the book, both Alderman and her characters wrestle with who Yehoshuah really was; the Messiah, or a roving preacher from a backwater town.

The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
Reno leaves the deserts of her hometown to join the New York art world in 1975. There she meets Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle and tire company along with other bohemian characters in his creative sphere. She begins to develop her art and on the way races high speed vehicles to become the fastest woman in the world. After a crushing betrayal, Reno joins a radical group in Italy. Kushner’s writing is a delight, deft and sharp and surprising; she describes Pat Nixon as “a ratted beauty-parlor tough who became first lady.” She layers stories upon stories to create a rich buffet of a book that you won’t be able to put down.

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta’s memoir of growing up in working class Massachusetts with her mother Kathi is both incredibly vivid and unsettling. As a reader I couldn’t turn away from her path of destruction, beginning with the opening pages as Kathi takes a crowbar to her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s car.  Kathi, whose life is a cascading series of high highs and low lows, is one of the most compelling characters to appear in a book this year. Loud, reckless, and chaotic, Kathi is the human equivalent of a V-2 rocket and Ruta neither glamorizes nor demonizes her difficult upbringing.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
After losing four close friends and a brother over four years, Jesmyn Ward tries to make sense of their premature deaths in this devastating memoir. Ward’s narrative moves back and forth in time as she explores life in her rural Mississippi community and the ways that the men in her life try to escape the snares of poverty, racism, and plain bad luck.  She writes to bring these men back from the dead and to draw our eyes to lives we would otherwise ignore.  As she says, “There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

Tenth of December by George Saunders

November 20, 2013

tenthdec“Having felt that abyss, I basically said, ‘O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you.’ ” – George Saunders
My heart leaped when I saw that George Saunders had a new story collection coming out this year. Ever since reading his story, In Persuasion Nation, back in 2005, my love for his work has continued unabated and I urge you, blog reader, to grab a copy of Tenth of December immediately.
For those unfamiliar with Saunders, his work uses satire and the surreal to capture the strangeness and unrelenting brutality of modern American corporate culture where cruelty is wrapped in management speak. His stories are dark and sharply funny, yet carry a deeply moral bent. In Escape from Spiderhead,a human test subject experiences a series of increasingly ruthless Milgramesque experiments to which he must decide to comply or resist. While in The Semplica Girl Diaries, a father struggles with providing for his family. When he wins the lottery he fulfills his daughter’s dream of having a set of Semplica Girls, which turn out to be a type of living lawn ornaments that reflect our ever growing globalized economy. The title story is a lovely showstopper combining the crossed paths of a man seeking suicide after his cancer diagnosis and the nerdy boy who sets out to save him.

Though many of Saunders’ characters seem to be caught in situations without escape, there is an undercurrent of grace and hope that persists despite the characters’ bleak situations.

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

December 14, 2012

This year, I decided to clump my favorite “old reads” into two categories. In one, I have stories which concern themselves with the lives of women and the other is stories which play with the Western genre in unconventional ways. On one hand you have female characters who must struggle against society’s limitations and constraints on women, and on the other you have two authors who have struggled against the conventions of a dusty genre with deep-set tropes. — Sarah K.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Nowadays, most people associate the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn with hipsters and all their accoutrements, such as fixed-wheel bikes, ironic facial hair and craft foods. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Williamsburg was a hard-scrabble, working class neighborhood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the coming of age of Francie Nolan, who lives there with her family as they struggle against poverty and the consequences of her father’s alcoholism. Though Smith wrote with a natural lyricism and was able to capture hope and beauty despite difficult circumstances, she did not flinch from realistic depictions of unwanted pregnancies, substance abuse and child predators. If you haven’t had a chance to read this classic or haven’t read it since your youth, give it a try and prepare to be charmed.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Fans of large country houses, large eccentric British families, and outsized personalities will enjoy The Pursuit of Love. Breezy, but sharp, Mitford based her portrayal on her own family and neighbors causing much pearl-clutching and gasps of outrage when it was published. The story follows the romantic misadventures of Linda Radlett as she seeks out true passionate love and adventure. Unsentimental, the book’s candy-coating of wit hides a deeper melancholy as it examines the conflict between seeking out romantic fulfillment or settling for domestic stability.

The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Group follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates as they navigate relationships, careers and motherhood in the mid-1930s. Think of this as the Depression-era, Girls or Sex and the City. Considered scandalous upon publication in 1963, many of the themes in the book pertaining to sex and its complications are fairly tame by today’s standards. However it’s compelling to read this and see the similarities and differences in the “women having it all” discussion that American women continue to struggle with. A fascinating aspect of the book is the section centered on new mother, Priss and the proto-mommy wars into which she gets sucked. Yes, the breastfeeding versus formula debate existed even then.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Reminiscent of the tone and style of Charles Portis’ True Grit, The Sisters Brothers tells the tale of Charles and Eli Sisters, as they pursue Herman Kermit Warm at the behest of the Commander, a powerful tycoon who wants to cash in on Warm’s chemical formula for finding gold. The book is narrated by Eli, a reluctant murderer who is plagued by self-doubt, yet stays in the business to remain close to his reckless and callous brother. DeWitt uses deadpan formalized 19th century vernacular as a gateway to melancholy dark humor, and his portrayal of lonely, woebegone Eli is the highlight of the book.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Not for the faint of heart, Blood Meridian follows the bloody trail of ‘the kid’ as he joins a violent band of mercenary scalp hunters as they tear through the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico during the mid-1800s. A meditation on the nature of violence, embodied by the grotesque character of the Judge, McCarthy explores the myth and reality of the Westward Expansion. What elevates this book from merely a laundry list of gratuitous acts of violence is McCarthy’s piercing, hypnotic prose and surreal imagery.

Best New Books of 2012: Sarah K.’s Picks

December 4, 2012

I am an eclectic reader, reading across genres, with a focus on literary craft and vivid characters. I read to be transported. Below are five of my favorites from 2012. All of them were compelling and were either hard to put down, played with new forms of fiction, or left a lasting impression. Enjoy!  — Sarah K.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
It’s 1926, and Evie O’Neill is thrilled when her parents send her to New York City after she sparks scandal in her small town using her hidden gift of reading objects. However, her plans for a free-wheeling flapper lifestyle are dampened by her living situation at her Uncle Will’s museum of the occult, and the discovery that a supernatural serial killer, Naughty John is on the loose. As the killer gains power, Evie realizes that her secret gift may be the key in stopping Naughty John from striking again.

NW by Zadie Smith
Using altering perspective and shifts in tone and style, NW follows the intertwining lives of four former classmates who once lived in a housing project in northwest London. Leah, Felix, Natalie (née Keisha), and Nathan represent the intersections of class and culture and the transformations one makes through life. Smith is also concerned with the movements of time and place, the role of memory and the constraints of identity, and uses experimental prose forms to explore the nature of her characters in new and exciting ways.

The Yard by Alex Grecian
Reeling from the failure to solve the Jack the Ripper murders, Scotland Yard’s newly formed “Murder Squad” suffers another setback when they find one of their own detectives stuffed into a trunk. Newly hired constable Walter Day must overcome his own self-doubt and the derision of greater London to find the killer. With the help of forensic specialist, Dr. Bernard Kingsley, Day explores the darker corners of Victorian England to solve the crime.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
When it comes to women, Yunior is a feckless connoisseur, constantly sinking relationships though his cheating despite his best intentions. These nine interlocking stories follow Junior though his romantic travails and his turbulent relationships with his mother and older brother, who is even more of a Don Juan than Yunior. Diaz’s lively prose, fabulous descriptions and clear love for his characters despite their flaws make this book a must-read.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is probably best known for her novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, she is also an adept essay writer. Though not a light read, When I Was a Child… is a satisfying exploration of the intersections between solitude and community, faith and politics beyond simple polemic. Robinson’s essays are wide-ranging in topic from the nature of austerity to the power of older hymns, and present provocative ideas such as, “community…consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know….”

Greatest Hits: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

July 5, 2012

This week we’re featuring some of our “greatest hits” – the most popular Book-a-Day blog posts since we started this almost three years ago. Today’s is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, reviewed by Sarah K.

Living in the South, most of us are well acquainted with Southern Gothic authors (O’Conner, Faulkner, Williams), and the conventions of the genre (the grotesque, mental illness, and family secrets).  Likewise there is a subset of Canadian fiction called Southern Ontario Gothic, which deals with similar themes, usually within the context of dour propriety, social conventions, and stern Protestantism.  Think frigid cold versus steamy humidity.  One of the hallmarks of this genre is Alias Grace.

During 1843 in Upper Canada, Irish servant girl Grace Marks was convicted of murder for her role in the deaths of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who was Kinnear’s lover at the time.  The circumstances of the murders were never fully understood, with Marks claiming at different times that she could not remember the events of the day, and that she was possessed by the spirit of a deceased friend*.  Both newspaper and personal accounts from the time were undecided if Marks was an unwitting accomplice or a diabolical mastermind.  Marks received a sentence of life in prison instead of hanging because of her age and gender.

In Alias Grace, Atwood takes the facts of the case and creates a fictionalized account of Marks’ life and the mystery surrounding her guilt or innocence.  The narrative alternates between Grace’s telling of her life and interviews with her alienist, Dr. Jordan, who is trying to discover Grace’s true character through a series of interviews.  Like the quilts that are a reoccurring image in the novel, Atwood pieces together a story that explores both the mores of the time and the fragmented nature of history, story, and truth.

*The Toronto Public Library has a digitized version of an account of the trial, which you can read here.

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JPod by Douglas Coupland

April 30, 2010

During the 1960s, working out of the University of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan published his most well-known books, Understanding Media and The Medium is the Massage.  Both books discuss the relationship between the individual and new technologies and the impact of those relationships on society.  For McLuhan, the content delivered through a technological medium was less important than the medium itself.  Many of McLuhan’s ideas foreshadowed the impact of the digital revolution and he coined the phrase ‘global village.’  I know…at this point you’re asking, “Why is she blathering on about some Canadian academic, I thought this was about Coupland?!”

Skip forward thirty years to Douglas Coupland, who has become McLuhan’s ideological heir in the world of fiction*.  Like McLuhan, Coupland’s fiction (and visual art) concerns itself with the intersection of humanity and technology.  Also like McLuhan, Coupland popularized lasting phrases such as ‘Generation X,’ and ‘McJobs.’  Unlike McLuhan, Coupland does this in a vastly more entertaining way, (despite McLuhan’s cameo in Annie Hall).

JPod follows the adventures of video-game designer Ethan Jarlewski and his five pod-mates, as they navigate the indignities of cubicle life and the constantly changing whims of the marketing department on their creative efforts.  The chaos of the office also extends into Ethan’s personal life, where he must deal with his mom’s home grow-op, a dead bicycle messenger, and even Douglas Coupland himself.  Interspersed with the main storyline are Coupland’s riffs on post-modern culture, spam, typography, and prime numbers.

Some readers may find the style of JPod overwhelming and perhaps a bit nonsensical.  Coupland tends to veer into the territory of experimental writing, which is not everyone’s cup of tea.  However, I urge you to go for the ride, or check out some of Coupland’s other works such as Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture, Eleanor Rigby, or Polaroids from the Dead.  Coupland has a gift for capturing the zeitgeist of the digital age, and the spiritual isolation that seems to be a result of life becoming increasingly disconnected from the material world.

*Coupland has recently become McLuhan’s biographer too.

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Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

April 29, 2010

Anne Shirley is one of the icons of Canadian literature.  Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists make pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island to visit the land where Montgomery set her now-classic story.  An entire cottage industry has emerged selling everything from day passes to the Avonlea Village of Anne of Green Gables, to bottles of raspberry cordial and Anne-themed chocolates.  Ignore the kitsch – Anne’s the real deal.

An orphan, eleven-year-old Anne Shirley, is sent to live with elderly brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla.  However, they are expecting a boy to help Matthew with the heavy work at their farm Green Gables and have no plans for a girl.  Headstrong, with a vivid imagination and a love for beauty, Anne wins a place at Green Gables and begins her life in the little town of Avonlea.  Along the way she gets into “scrapes,” which include dyeing her much-hated red hair green, sinking a boat, and accidentally getting her bosom friend Diana drunk.

There are many things to love about the book: Montgomery’s wry sense of humor, her excellent secondary characters (Rachel Lynde, in particular), but best of all is Anne herself.  Anne speaks her mind, is true to herself (it’s Anne-with-an-E, thank you very much), and uses her imagination and intellect to overcome life’s obstacles.  As Anne says in one of the first few chapters, “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Find and reserve Anne of Green Gables in our catalog.


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